Omega-3s and Acne: What’s The Connection?

Omega-3s and Acne: What’s The Connection?

9 minute read

Whether you're dealing with unsightly blemishes, painful swelling, or both, dealing with acne can be a struggle at any age. So you may have found a variety of potential solutions on the web and from your circle, including the use of omega-3s. But does omega-3 help with acne?

If you’re looking for a solution for your skin problems, here’s what you need to know about using omega-3 for acne.

Inflammation and acne

First, let's talk a bit about what acne actually is and what causes it in the first place.

At a basic level, acne is a skin condition caused by blocked skin follicles. The blockage can eventually lead to unsightly and/or painful pimples, whiteheads, or blackheads.

Acne is a fairly normal skin condition and is especially common among teenagers as they go through hormonal changes that cause changes to the amount of oil and sebum their skin produces. However, it can also happen to people of all ages. Acne can occur in many different areas of your skin but is most common in the face, neck, back, and chest. Inflammation and acne

Acne can be divided into two main categories: inflammatory and noninflammatory acne. 

Inflammation is a reaction carried about by your immune system. Under normal circumstances, your body sends out an inflammatory reaction to combat things that it might detect as foreign pathogens that can be dangerous to your health like bacteria, viruses, and dead or damaged cells.

Inflammation leads to swelling and heat as your cells work hard to repair the damage and kill off those pathogens that could cause infection and/or disease. This is why you might experience temporary pain and swelling at the site of an injury when your body is healing a cut, for example.

Inflammation is also linked to many different kinds of acne. As the name suggests, noninflammatory acne is a condition in which your skin follicles are blocked with skin cells or oil, but no inflammatory reaction occurs. These often manifest as whiteheads or blackheads.

However, an inflammatory reaction can also occur when your follicles become plugged with dead skin cells, excess oil, and acne-causing bacteria. When this happens, your immune system detects these "invaders" and causes an inflammatory reaction at the plugged follicle, leading to those red or pink swollen and often painful pimples.

It's also common for inflammatory acne to be filled with pus, which is another byproduct of inflammation as your immune system works hard to fight the invading bacteria. 

Omega-3s may improve acne.

Because many cases of acne are linked to out-of-control inflammatory reactions, it's only natural that many people turn to anti-inflammatory ingredients to add to their diet and skincare routine. Of the many different anti-inflammatory ingredients out there, omega-3s are definitely among some of the most popular. This then begs the question: does omega-3 help with acne? 

First, let’s talk about what omega-3s are. Omega-3s are a class of healthy fatty acids found in various foods and supplements, as well as in some topical skincare products. There are three main types of omega-3s that are thought to be the most bioactive:

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)

Omega-3s are very well known for their potential anti-inflammatory benefits, which means that they have been studied at length for use in supporting your body against chronic inflammatory reactions like those related to heart health and brain health.* 

Omega 3 Fatty acids

In addition, as it turns out, there’s also evidence that those anti-inflammatory properties may also be effective for certain cases of inflammatory acne. Some researchers believe that the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s can influence the levels of hormones like insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), a key hormone that is thought to cause acne.

There are also clinical studies that further highlight this link between omega-3s for acne. For example, a recent 2022 study conducted by dermatologists with the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology studied the nutrition status of 100 patients diagnosed with acne -- and found a whopping 94% of those patients surveyed tested as having below-recommended levels of omega-3 fatty acids. 

In another study, participants with mild to moderate acne were given omega-3 supplements for ten weeks. At the end of those ten weeks, researchers saw improvements in both inflammatory and noninflammatory acne lesions, indicating that omega-3s may play a role in fighting acne regardless of acne type. Omega 3 acne benefits

The skin health benefits of omega-3s don’t stop with acne, either. Omega-3s are also linked to other skin benefits including:

  • Increasing hydration
  • Promoting wound healing
  • Protection from sun damage
  • Preventing signs of aging like wrinkles and dryness 

Potential side effects

Potential side effects acne omega 3But as with any dietary supplement, it’s important to exercise caution before starting. This is especially true when it comes to omega-3s for acne because there are also some other conflicting studies that seem to indicate that this fatty acid can also be harmful to some people’s skin. 

Can Fish Oil Cause Acne?

It might be in some individuals, but more research must be done to understand this link. What we know: one very small study gave 13 individuals with inflammatory acne a fish oil supplement for twelve weeks. The researchers found that each participant reacted differently to the supplementation: for example, 8 of the individuals saw improvements in acne, but 4 saw worse acne after the fact. 

So why would this happen?

Just as everyone has a different skin type (i.e., normal versus oily versus dry), everyone's skin can also react differently to certain skincare and dietary ingredients, including omega-3s. What's more, many fish oil supplements can be rancid right off the shelves, which can trigger an adverse effect on your skin and even worsen an existing acne problem.

How to use omega-3s for acne

So even though there's promising evidence that using omega-3s may be beneficial for some people with acne and other skin problems, there are key considerations to keep in mind while shopping for an omega-3 for acne.* 

How to use omega-3s for acne

  • Look for omega-3 sources that contain EPA and DHA, rather than ALA. While ALA is a good omega-3 that can be found in some plant-based sources like chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and flax, your body first needs to convert them to EPA and DHA in order to use them (and unfortunately, this conversion process does not always yield as much omega-3 as you might want). Instead, skip the middleman and look for omega-3 supplements that contain EPA and DHA directly.
  • Consider the dosage. The proper dosage of omega-3 to take can vary based on your needs and current health status. There is not enough research yet to quantify the recommended dietary allowance for omega-3s, nor is there a clinical dosage proven effective for fighting acne. However, the adequate intake (AI) for omega-3s is 1.6 grams a day for men and 1.1 grams a day for women (or more if you are currently breastfeeding or pregnant), so this is a good place to start to ensure that you aren't at risk of an omega-3 deficiency.
  • Use a fish oil alternative. Whether following a plant-based/vegan diet or not eating fish, consider using algae oil to meet your omega-3 needs. Unlike other plant-based sources of omega-3s that generally contain ALA, this vegan alternative has EPA and DHA so that your body gets the most bioavailable omega-3 source without compromising on your dietary restrictions.
  • If problems persist, it may be worth talking to your doctor or dermatologist. In addition, you should always speak to your doctor before starting any supplement regimen, including omega-3 supplements.
  • Make sure that your omega-3 supplements are still good. Due to the inherent fat content, fish oil pills can go rancid very quickly, which can be bad for your skin and complicate existing skin issues even more. So if you're using fish oil, store it in a cool, dry place and buy them in darker containers to avoid sun damage that can cause rancidity faster. 

In addition, as is the case with any health-related goal, several other factors may influence the appearance of acne besides dietary supplements. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, some other ways that you can manage your acne include:

  • Using a gentle cleanser twice a day to keep your skin clean and clear away dirt, oil, and bacteria that may be clogging your pores
  • Avoid touching, squeezing, or picking existing acne to keep it clean and prevent scarring and hyperpigmentation
  • Use gentle products as part of your skincare regimen and give it plenty of time for treatment to start working

Key takeaways on omega-3s and acne

Acne is a skin condition that is often caused by inflammation of clogged skin follicles. Because of this, the natural anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids mean that some people could see improvements in their acne.*

However, more research needs to be done to determine exactly how much omega-3 is beneficial for acne, especially since there’s also some evidence that it could worsen acne conditions in some people.

If you're thinking about adding an omega-3 supplement like algae oil pills to your dietary regimen, talk to a doctor or dermatologist first to make sure that it is the right move for your unique skin needs.

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